Meet Werner Spitz, the 95-Year-Old ‘Medical Detective’

Death waits for no man—especially not a forensic pathologist.

Dr. Werner Spitz got a call on Christmas Eve 2008 asking for his assistance in the funeral of a two-year old girl. Spitz flew to Orlando the following day. Although the task was not new to Spitz, he has never lost sight of it in his long career.

“I remember that to this very day. I walked into the funeral home, and here was this long, long hallway—unilluminated because by the time I got to Orlando, it was dark,” Spitz recalls. The funeral home, aside from a gurney with stacks upon boxes, was abandoned by 11 p.m.

Caylee Anthony was the girl whose skeletal remains were found inside. Her mother, Casey Anthony, had been indicted for her daughter’s murder, and Anthony’s defense lawyer was seeking a medical opinion. Spitz spent Christmas Eve inspecting the skull of his young victim. Spitz left Michigan after completing his research and packed up. Spitz was not in control of the guilt or innocence of the mother. Casey Anthony, who was facing murder and manslaughter accusations was finally acquitted. All he could do was give his best account of how he thought the girl died—including his assessment that the evidence on the body did not confirm the state’s version of what had happened to Caylee—and leave the rest up to the lawyers, judge, and jury.

Spitz enjoyed the day with his grandchildren and children, opening presents together. That kind of shift from grappling with violent death to enjoying the pleasures of daily life has always been part of his job, but that doesn’t make it easy. “It isn’t really a matter of it being hard for me to do it because I’ve done lots of such cases. But I then go home and go to sleep, and I dream about it, and it’s horrible,” he says.

To the philosopher or the cleric, death is an enigmatic thing, but to the forensic pathologist—a doctor who deals in the traumatic injuries of violent deaths—it is a science requiring patience, time, and the proper tools. Spitz is the founder of modern forensic pathology and the author of the textbook that remains the standard for the profession today. While lawyers, police, and judges are the most well-known players in the justice process, it’s doctors such as Spitz who, trudging from one town to the next with their medical supplies, do the scientific work required to solve the crimes. Even though a murder is not seen, the corpse bears testimony. The American story has taken shape because of the body interpretations Spitz was assigned.

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Spitz, 95, has more than 60 years of experience and played an important role in many famous cases, including the assassinations John F. Kennedy Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr., trials involving O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector, and the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez; the killing of JonBenet Ramsey. He’s conducted thousands of autopsies, and he has no interest in retirement. (Golf bores me, he said. He’d much rather spend his days looking for the small clue—an abrasion, a tiny puncture in the skin, an impacted skull—that solves a mysterious death.

“It’s like being a medical detective,” says Spitz. To him, a gunshot wound is not a hole in the body: it’s an event that leaves all manner of evidence, from metal fragments and broken vertebrae to clothing fibers and contusions. As Spitz explains: “The bullet doesn’t tell you anything. The skin tells you.”

Spitz is not a stranger to death. His parents, a German-born Jew sent him to Paris to live with his aunt in the 1933 year Hitler was elected chancellor. “My mother realized that we better get out of here before it’s too late,” he says.

Spitz was raised by doctors parents. Spitz attended Geneva medical school and Israel’s Israel Medical School. It was a punishment that he received his first exposure to the specialty that would be his. To keep Spitz away from friends his father deemed “mischief-makers,” he was sent to shadow the city hospital chief in Tel Aviv in the department of pathology every summer. Spitz was fascinated by the autopsy performed for police investigation. “I went to watch autopsies, every single autopsy that occurred,” he recalls.

He was only tasked to examine one murder during the seven-years he lived in Israel as a doctor. This sounds like something out of a movie.,Both the victim and murderer were bagel sellers at a bus station. The victim was stabbed to death by the second vendor after he raised his prices. There wasn’t much to solve, as the crime had taken place in public, and the perpetrator, motive, and means were all clear. Spitz was still moved by this incident. He wanted to find a place with more difficult crimes to study and he began looking for ways to get to the U.S. He doesn’t smile at death, but he can’t help but chuckle at the fact that a change in bagel prices would take him out of the Tel Aviv morgue and set him on a new path.

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Coincidence, in retrospect, can seem like destiny. So it was that Dr. Spitz happened to be traveling by ship for a job in the Maryland medical examiner’s office in November 1963. Just 100 miles away from New York Harbor was the reason the ship stopped to make it land. It had been halted by a national emergency. The President Kennedy assassination was the day before. Shock and confusion settled across the passengers, stunned by the president’s murder. “It was a ship with many decks, and I walked around everywhere, and everywhere there were collections of people listening to shortwave radios that would tell what happened. Everybody was speculating,” he says. “It was a terrible experience. The ship was all dark: there was no light, no music, no dancing, no nothing.”

Little did he know, Spitz would be the one to dispel much of the speculation that sprung up around Kennedy’s assassination. Spitz grew to be an expert in his field and taught at Johns Hopkins University before being appointed chief medical inspector of Wayne County in Michigan. In the 1970s, a government committee called him to reexamine the autopsy performed after Kennedy’s assassination. “At that time, the knowledge of forensic pathology was at its bottom,” Spitz said of the 1960s. “People looked upon a gunshot wound like a hole in the skin. But it’s not a hole in the skin! Absolutely not.”

In Washington, D.C., Spitz sifted through all the evidence—the autopsy report, the clothes Kennedy had been wearing, enormous color photographs of the cadaver. “I could see every pore in the President’s face,” he recalls. The errors in the autopsy were so numerous, according to Spitz, that he went so far as to call the procedure “botched.” To a veteran forensic pathologist, one error stuck out in particular. Spitz said that the exit wound was mistaken for the entrance in Kennedy’s neck shot. Spitz however saw the clear evidence. His clothing and broken skin pointed in the opposite direction.

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By identifying the puncture in Kennedy’s throat as an exit wound, Spitz was able to dispel one of the most prevalent conspiracies: the “grassy knoll” theory, or the idea that there was a second shooter, in front of the President, in addition to Lee Harvey Oswald who was behind him.

“In both the President and in Martin Luther King’s case, the mistakes were made by people who have a rank in society that enables them to offer opinions,” Spitz said. “But they were wrong.” Called to reexamine the findings in King’s assassination, Spitz uncovered similar such mistakes. King had been hit from the side of the street, while he was standing on his balcony. He was discovered with small grains of dust or dirt embedded in his facial tissues. This substance was mistakenly thought to be gunpowder by the examiners, which would mean that King had been hit in the face with a close-range shot. Spitz proved the absence of gunpowder and was therefore able to establish that the victim died from a long-range shooting.

Although certain of these conclusions may have seemed obvious in hindsight they weren’t at all obvious when they happened. The United States was a country where forensics was considered to be junk science. The American Board of Pathology started certifying physicians in this specialty in 1959. This was the first time that forensic pathology in America was recognized. Previously, murder investigations were dominated by witness testimony or forced confessions. Researchers have now shown that this testimony is not reliable. Many of the hard evidence law enforcement collected was based on pseudoscience like anthropometry. The 1970s saw the first detection of gunshot residue. However, police officers were many years from being able to use DNA evidence to solve criminal cases. Spitz, thanks to his training abroad­—where forensic pathology was more advanced—supplied much needed expertise.

The field advanced swiftly in the following decades, but Spitz’s talent sometimes seems to go beyond his knowledge of the science involved. Diane Lucke has been Spitz’s right hand since the 1970s, beginning work as his phono-typist and going on to assist him in many cases. Lucke recalls a 1990 investigation into a nursing home where he found a body of mutilated remains. His findings were then distributed in multiple garbage bags. Spitz found a small skull fracture and determined that it was the reason for her death. On his suggestion, the police searched her ex-husband’s house, located a receipt from a hardware store and identified his purchase: a wood-splitting wedge. “It fit perfectly into the wound, into the injury in the skull,” Lucke said. “A number of people wouldn’t have even paid attention to that or wouldn’t have observed it in all this mess, because the body was so badly decomposed.” The ex-husband was convicted.

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This discovery could seem like something out of a mystery book, and Sherlock Holmes might be able to uncover the truth quickly. The public often views forensic pathologists, which they believe can create ironclad Clue-like scenarios, as oracles. The discipline has made great strides, but it’s far from an exact science. Even unassailable evidence, such as DNA, has been proven to be flawed. Prejudice, even racial base can affect medical examiners. As expert witnesses, they can also earn big money—as much as $5,000 a day, according to some reports. And Spitz himself has come in for criticism over the years: JonBenet Ramsey’s brother sued him for defamation, though he later dropped the lawsuit. Spitz does not always stand on the side the victim. Spitz insists that whether he’s contracted by the defense or the prosecution, he can’t be bought. For instance, after being hired by the defense for Michael Peterson, the so-called “staircase killer,” Spitz was not called to the stand because his medical opinion was deemed damaging to the defense. (Peterson was convicted.

“An expert witness needs to be courageous when it comes time and to say he doesn’t know the answer,” Spitz tells me. “He must say openly, ‘You know, Your Honor, I’m sorry, but I do not have another opinion than the one I gave.’ Or say ‘I don’t know what the answer is.’ We do not know everything. We know a lot, but we don’t know everything.”

Spitz’s testimony box performance is captivatingHe once pulled a skull from a bag and used it to prove a point, much like a contemporary Shakespeare actor. In the civil case against O.J., Simpson testified. Simpson, he was unequivocal, describing the blow that killed Nicole Brown Simpson as a “devastating slash” that “[cut the] voice box in two, entering the bone of the vertebral column.” He speaks with an accent somewhere between German and Israeli, discussing stab wounds and leaky brain matter with an ease that comes from dealing in death for nearly three quarters of a century.

Dr. Henry Lee, a forensic scientist who has worked on many cases with Spitz—including those of Michael Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey, and Phil Spector—compared their work to that of a small part in a big symphony. “In a symphony, you have the director, you have the musicians. We’re just a musical instrument,” Lee says. “Just like a symphony, the audience decides to like this piece of music or not. It’s not the musical instrument. Whether a jury finds someone guilty or not, that’s not up to us.”

At the same time, Spitz seems keenly aware of the responsibility in his hands, whether in the morgue or on the witness stand, and it’s what continues to motivate him in his seventh decade on the job. Lucke, Spitz’s assistant, recalls one of their most significant cases: the 1987 Northwest flight 255 crash. After taking off from Detroit, the plane struck a light pole and crashed onto a nearby highway. The accident resulted in several people being killed, including a four-year old girl, whose miracle survival remains a mystery. Only a handful of victims could be seen due to the severity of the accident. The rest of them needed to have their fingerprints or dental records matched. Spitz and Lucke both had many years of experience, but this was a rare case. Whole families were destroyed in minutes. Spitz was able to help parents identify the remains of two to three children who had been killed in the crash.

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Although the crash site was only a few minutes from their home, it appeared like an area of war, complete with human and debris scattered across the roads. They set up an emergency room in an aircraft hangar with sawhorses and no medical tables. “It got to the point where he sent me out with the families, and he went back in with the bodies, because he was crying with the families,” Lucke recalls. Spitz doesn’t seem to be immune from the pain and suffering surrounding his work. It’s something he thinks and talks about a lot: Was this person in pain? He was aware that he was on the verge of death. Beyond the legal ramifications, the answers to those questions are often the first things a victim’s family wants to know. It’s why he has an easier time dealing with dead bodies than with living victims. He explains it to me this way: the bodies aren’t suffering any more. Their suffering is now over. Post-mortem, Spitz can give their families perhaps not something as pat as closure, but at least answers about someone’s final moments.

“I’ve seen a lot, because of my age,” he says. “I’m still working because I enjoy the work. Because I love the work. Because you gain a greater or more complete understanding of things over time. You learn by exposure to things that, at one point you didn’t understand, and later on in life, you do.”

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